Houma invaded by Hollywood movie shoot

A storm of activity extended beyond rain showers and developing tropical systems Friday and Saturday. Construction workers, lighting and sound crews, prop experts, pyro-technicians, an up-and-coming director, stand-in extras and top-name actors transformed downtown Houma into a historic and tragic scene from more than 44 years ago.

Select areas from Main to School streets and Lafayette to Goode streets were altered to a different era for the weekend.

Crews and actors then depicted catastrophic events that occurred in a section of Washington D.C., along with more than 100 other cities across America, when race riots erupted into five days of violence following the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., on April 4, 1968.

Directed by Lee Daniels, known for hard-hitting films including “Precious” and “Monster’s Ball,” one timeline section of “The Butler” was being filmed locally.

In “The Butler,” Forest Whitaker depicts the title role of Eugene Allen (film name Cecil Gaines). Along with co-star Oprah Winfrey, playing Gaines wife, Gloria, the story is based on Allen’s 34 year career serving eight U.S. presidents and having front-row access to historic events between 1952 and 1986.

“It’s interesting,” Houma resident Brian LeBlanc said as he sat on a park bench and watched crews line the streets with electrical cables, position high-powered light towers and frame an area around the Terrebonne Parish Courthouse for filming.

Downtown storefront facades and windows were constructed and stocked with furniture, shoe displays and other consumer goods from the 1960s. Streets were lined with vintage vehicles including a 1965 Ford Mustang, two 1967 Dodge police cars, Galaxy 500s, LTDs and other automobiles of the era being portrayed.

Traffic signs were changed and anything symbolism or advertising revealing a time other than the mid-20th century was removed from what would be a camera’s view.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” LeBlanc said. “I had no idea how much detail goes into this and how much manpower it takes.”

Novel and Karen Duplantis spent Friday afternoon walking up-and-down Main Street, watching as some transformed storefronts were intentionally damaged. Windows were broken as a setup for looting scenes, and a Volkswagen Beetle positioned at the intersecting Main, Belanger and Church streets was prepared to be set on fire.

Karen’s family owned the old Bijou Theatre in downtown Houma and Novel was a projectionist there when they met. “So we’ve grown up in the movie business,” Novel joked. “We are really interested in movie making, so this is very interesting to us.”

“We’ve had movies shot here in the past, but nothing like this,” Karen said. “I didn’t expect to see the old furniture brought in for the stores. It is interesting to me how they are going to make this look like Washington, D.C.”

Not all area residents were simply setup observers. Greg Dobney and his son, Derik, were hired to act as police officers and drive a vintage squad car for the weekend. “We are going to get to arrest some people tonight,” Greg said. “It is good to see something like this come to the area.”

An hour before clearing the streets for filming, Houma Police stood on an outer perimeter and hired security kept onlookers at least one block away from Daniels, as we walked the streets with his executive crew, making final preparations before rolling cameras.

Neither Daniels, nor any lead actors for this shoot was available to comment regarding their work. According to publicist Wellington Love, interviews were not possible because of insufficient advance notice. “Maybe we can arrange something later,” Love said.

“It’s gone great,” location scout John McCollam said of getting equipment, props and scenes positioned before bringing in actors and clearing the area from public view. “Everybody in Houma has been wonderful. It is a very easy town to work with.”

In addition to Whitaker and Winfrey, “The Butler” features roles played by Robin Williams, James Marsden, Live Schreiber, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, Nelsan Ellas, Cuba Gooding Jr, Minka Kelly, Nicole Kidman, Vanessa Redgrave and many other top level performers.

“The Butler” is expected to hit theatres sometime in 2013.

“The Butler” director Lee Daniels is shown key filming preparation areas by his crew on Belanger Street in Houma. Weekend motion picture work in Houma depicted the Washington, D.C. riots and march to the White House in the 1960s.